Toyon (Heteromeles), California native evergreen shrub, with Verbena by entry to side garden Sibley drought tolerant front yard garden, Richmond California

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)

If you have space in your garden for a large shrub or small multi-trunked tree that will live for decades, is attractive year-round, and provides food and shelter for wildlife, you can hardly beat California’s native toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) for its resilience, habitat value, and natural beauty.

Toyon is native to much of California and survives drought, though occasional deep watering may be needed in the driest times and will bring fresh new growth with quick results.  Toyon needs good drainage and thrives in full sun to part shade but tolerates full shade.

Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon, Christmas Berry) berries

Toyon winter berries

This ten- to fifteen-foot tall by eight- to ten-foot wide evergreen shrub makes a fine screen or specimen plant, handsome at all times of year. The clusters of tiny white summer flowers are attractive to butterflies, and birds love the bright red wintertime berries.  Deer will browse the new leaves and may strip leaves up as high as they can reach.

Toyon is commonly damaged by fungal leaf diseases, often as a result of poor air circulation.  Plants sprout vigorously after cutting back, which produces dense new foliage that is gratifying to the gardener but ultimately may subject the plant to foliar disease.  New plants should be spaced at least 8 to 10 feet apart, not crowded by other plants, and never sheared as a hedge or cut back hard without vigilant follow-up to ensure that new growth is not too dense for good air circulation.

Give toyons plenty of space, prune lightly to shape, plant on mounds or slopes for good drainage and you will have one of the most rewarding evergreen shrubs that California has to offer.


Symphoricarpos albus (aka. S.racemosa) (Snowberry) white berries detail

Symphoricarpos albus

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) is one of those plants that remind you that California does, after all, have seasons.

A delicate-looking shrub with a strong constitution, snowberry has small, somewhat sparse, oval to slightly lobed blue-green leaves and an airy, rounded habit. The early summer flowers are bell-shaped and pinkish white, not particularly showy but quite charming clustered at the ends of branches and attractive to hummingbirds.

The fall berries are indescribably lovely to behold.  Clusters of large, brilliant white, waxy fruits stand out against any background.  There are few shrubs with berries as white and wonderful as this.

This native California shrub grows 3 to 6 feet tall and wide, finely branched and upright to mounding, and spreads underground by rhizomes.  Plant it where it doesn’t need to be contained, or cut out suckers as they appear. The rhizomatous rooting makes this a great bank stabilizer.

Snowberry is a deciduous shrub, so plan for winter loss of leaves.  It is perhaps best planted among evergreen shrubs and groundcovers such as manzanitas or mahonias that can carry the show when it is out of leaf.  In full leaf it is highly ornamental.

Some berries will hang on into winter, but they turn brownish white until they fall or are eaten by birds. Snowberry takes some shade, even full shade, but it flowers and fruits best with part-day full sun, where occasional deep watering is appreciated.  It accepts most soils, but does better with at least fair drainage.

Snowberry may be munched by deer, but not if anything more palatable is available.  Rabbits, squirrels, and other small mammals relish it for cover.  Quail may use it as nesting sites.  Larger birds such as jays will eat the berries, though there have been reports of quite odd behavior after birds have eaten what may be somewhat toxic berries.


Mimulus aurantiacus with Phacelia campanularia

Mimulus aurantiacus with Phacelia campanularia

Gardeners in summer-dry climates often seek out plants that when fully established can survive without any supplemental water.  This may require some tolerance for the dried-out appearance that many of these plants take on in late summer as they hunker down to make it through to the next rains.

Bush monkeyflower or sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus) is a natural candidate for summer-dry gardens that feature the colors of California.  This is the deep orange to yellow-orange flower that, along with lavender lupine and bright orange poppies, graces California roadsides, parklands, and open spaces from spring into summer.

Mimulus aurantiacus

Mimulus aurantiacus

Tolerant of considerable dryness, bush monkeyflower goes semi-dormant in late summer or early fall, losing most of its leaves if unwatered.  It may look more acceptable to passersby if you water it sparingly, but in all but the driest years it will get by with none.  Bush monkeyflower prefers excellent drainage and thrives on slopes or mounds or in rock gardens where excess winter rains drain quickly away.  Some afternoon shade is appreciated, especially in inland gardens.

An erect to sprawling woody perennial native to open hillsides and rocky outcrops throughout much of California, the long-lived, long-blooming bush monkeyflower is still sometimes called Diplacus, a former name that clearly distinguished it from other monkeyflowers (Mimulus species) that prefer regular summer water, rich soils, and some shade.

Upright or mounding from one to four feet tall and two or three feet wide, with glossy, narrow, sticky green leaves, bush monkeyflower tends to get leggy without yearly tip pruning and will accept a fairly hard cutting back.  Butterflies and hummingbirds flock to it and deer usually ignore it.  Nurseries carry many cultivars and hybrids with flower colors ranging from creamy white to peachy orange and bright red.


Mahonia aquifolium 'Golden Abundance' flower and leaf detail

Mahonia aquifolium ‘Golden Abundance’

There are many lists for planting under trees, especially native oaks.

I don’t plant anything under native oaks.  I think they need the root space, and the fallen leaves themselves are beauty enough for me. But there are many other shaded situations that call out for groundcover.

Mahonias (sometimes called Oregon grape) are bold-textured evergreen shrubs or mounding groundcovers for part sun to almost full shade.  Many are native to California, especially northwestern parts of the state.

I’ve seen mahonias growing well in highly cultivated, over-irrigated landscapes, but most look best in untended or lightly tended areas, where they provide a wild and rugged natural effect.  Once established, most are content with little water, except in full sun.

Mahonia x media with clusters of scented yellow flowers

Mahonia x media with clusters of scented yellow flowers

These spiny-leaved hollylike shrubs are long-lived and slow growing.  They aren’t bothered by deer unless there is nothing at all more palatable at hand.  The green leaves usually start out reddish, turn lustrous dark green in summer, and then bronzy red again in fall.

Early spring flowers are bright yellow, in clusters brilliant enough to command attention.  Late summer to early winter blackish purple berries are loved by birds.  Bees and butterflies are attracted to the flowers.

Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon Grape) with blue berries

Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon grape) with blue berries

Leaves look best in part shade with occasional water, but there may be fewer flowers in deep shade.  These mostly woodland plants also seem happiest in somewhat acidic, organically enriched soil with decent drainage.

If you have a mature bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), that would be a good spot for mahonias.  They both like acidic soils and a little water in the driest months of summer.  Also good candidates for shading mahonias are conifers, as long as the needle drop is not too deep or compacted.  Pines and cedars tend to acidify the soil around them.

Mahonia aquifolium is an upright shrub to about 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide.  The variety ‘Compactum’ stays about 3 feet tall and spreads more widely. ‘Golden Abundance’ has particularly showy flowers.  M. repens is a mounding groundcover that spreads slowly by suckering as well as underground.  Growth is slow and spread can be controlled, if desired, with a grubbing hoe.  M. nevinii is 5 feet tall and wide, with new leaves reddish pink, turning gray-green, silvery below.  This mahonia tolerates alkaline and clay soils.


Arctostaphylos pajaroensis (Pajaro Manzanita) peeling mahogany bark shrub branches in Tilden California Native Plant Botanic Garden.

Arctostaphylos pajaroensis branches in Tilden Park

Every garden needs a “backbone” – usually trees or shrubs that provide enduring form and structure as perennials and annuals lose their seasonal impact.  Native to much of the West Coast, manzanitas (Arctostaphylos) are the perfect backbone plants for California – graceful form, picturesque bark, showy clusters of small winter to early spring flowers, and handsome green or gray-green leaves year round.

Arctostaphylos hooveri (Hoover's Manzanita) bark detail

Arctostaphylos hooveri bark

Why are manzanitas not in every California garden?  Perhaps because they often fail to thrive under gardening practices considered normal for East Coast or English gardens and still common throughout California.

Arctostaphylos ‘Howard McMinn’ is more garden-tolerant than most manzanitas, but it dislikes “wet feet” and will eventually decline if it doesn’t have excellent drainage, good air circulation, no fertilization, and infrequent deep irrigation.  Sun to part shade is best.

This manzanita is readily available and widely planted in commercial landscapes, where, for a surprisingly long time, it accepts poor drainage, excessive irrigation, and shearing as severe as English boxwood.  The exceptional short-term performance of ‘Howard McMinn’ under such conditions evidently is considered worth the price of periodic replacement.

Given what it needs and enough space to grow to its natural size, ‘Howard McMinn’ is long-lived and becomes ever more beautiful over time.  Left to its own devices, it develops an upright mounding form to six or seven feet tall and wider, densely branched, with dark reddish brown, peeling bark, glossy green leaves, and small white flowers tinged with pink, followed by small red berries.  Birds, bees, and butterflies love this plant and, once well established, it is not bothered by deer.

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi 'Point Reyes' (Bearberry Manzanita)

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Point Reyes’

There are many other garden-worthy manzanitas, though few as forgiving as ‘Howard McMinn’.  A good choice for dry shade is ‘Pacific Mist’, two feet tall and six feet wide with gray-green leaves and an irregular, upright but sprawling habit.  ‘Pt. Reyes’ is a low groundcover with dark green rounded leaves, a fine choice for coastal areas but thriving inland with moderate summer water and some shade.  ‘Sentinel’ is upright to six or eight feet tall with gray-green leaves and abundant pinkish white flowers.   ‘Austin Griffiths’, a favorite of mine, is upright, ten to twelve feet tall, with glossy green leaves, dark maroon bark, and masses of pale pink flowers.







Ceanothus griseus horizontalis 'Yankee Point', blue flowering California Lilac shrub as groundcover

Ceanothus griseus horizontalis ‘Yankee Point’

If you’re looking for a plant that provides masses of spring flowers, stays green year round, takes little to no summer water, and thrives on benign neglect, it’s hard to beat California’s wild lilacs (Ceanothus).

There are so many kinds of ceanothus that it takes a little research and some trial-and-error to find one that will do well in your garden.  Fortunately, most grow quite fast, so an initial failure is not irreparable.

Some ceanothus are wide-spreading ground-huggers.  Others are medium-height mounds.  Still others are tall, upright shrubs that can be gently trained as small trees.

Some ceanothus perform best inland, while others require cool, foggy summers to do well.  All pretty much demand excellent drainage and infrequent to no summer water.

Ceanothus thyrsiflorus 'Snow Flurry' (Wild Lilac) white flower blossoms

Ceanothus thyrsiflorus ‘Snow Flurry’

Showy clusters of tiny flowers are pale to brilliant blue, white, lavender, or occasionally pinkish rose.  Deer regularly munch all ceanothus except those with the smallest, toughest, or most prickly leaves and will test all kinds when newly planted.

Ceanothus ‘Yankee Point’ is a fast-spreading groundcover, about 3 feet tall and 10 feet wide, with large, dark green leaves and dark blue flowers.  It does best near the coast.

‘Carmel Creeper’ is somewhat lower and wider spreading with glossy green leaves and light blue flowers.  Away from the coast it requires some summer water and may be short-lived.

‘Ray Hartman’ is a vigorous shrub to small tree that grows quickly to 15 feet tall and wide.  Leaves are large and medium green, and masses of sky blue to grayish blue flowers open from pinkish buds.  This one grows well in both interior and coastal gardens.

Ceanothus leucodermus with Redbud and Arctostaphylos 'Howard McMinn'. Red, white and blue color combination.

Ceanothus leucodermus with redbud behind and Arctostaphylos ‘Howard McMinn’ in foreground

‘Concha’ is an adaptable shrub, dense and mounding 6 to 8 feet tall, with masses of cobalt blue flowers in late winter to spring.  It succeeds in coastal or inland gardens with good drainage and little to no summer water.

Maritime ceanothus (Ceanothus maritimus) has olive-green leaves and pale blue flowers in late winter or very early spring.  It is low growing, stiffly branching, and slightly mounding, somewhat like a cotoneaster.  This ceanothus is best along the coast but does well in inland gardens with part shade and infrequent summer water.

Echium candicans

Echium candicans (aka. E. fastuosum) (Pride of Madeira) flowering along dirt path in waterwise garden

Echium candicans (aka. E. fastuosum) (Pride of Madeira) flowering along dirt path in summer-dry waterwise garden

At its most luxuriant in mid to late spring is Echium candicans.  Hailing from Madeira and the Canary Islands, this magnificent plant has spread into wildlands and untended landscapes in some coastal California areas and is sometimes mistaken for a native.

Big, bold, and fast-growing, this ultimately massive shrub can overwhelm a small urban backyard at maturity, but if you’ve got the space and appreciate vegetative drama, this is a plant worth considering.

E. candicans grows quickly to six or eight feet tall and wide, and it seeds about in astonishing abundance.  Expect to pull many tiny seedlings every year if you don’t cut off the flower stalks before seeds mature.  Don’t plant it anywhere near natural open space.  Even if you are able to contain this plant, gardeners that come after you may not know how or be willing to do it.

Seedlings are easy to pull, but you have to keep after them.  Young plants can appear thirty feet from the parent plant.  That’s a good thing if you like surprises, not so good if you don’t.

Echium candicans (aka. E. fastuosum) (Pride of Madeira) with spikelike purple flowers in drought tolerant garden

Echium candicans (aka. E. fastuosum) (Pride of Madeira) with spikelike purple flowers in summer-dry garden

E. candicans requires no supplemental water near the coast, though leaves may droop piteously in hot inland summers.  The tall spikes of iridescent clear blue to violet-blue flowers will knock your socks off in spring and early summer.  The leaves are soft, gray-green, and lightly hairy.  They are large and lush on young plants, smaller on plants that have passed their prime.

Echium will not accept hard pruning, but the perfectly rounded shape of young plants can be maintained by annual light tip pruning.  If you let them go too long without tip pruning plants will become lanky and wildly irregular in age.

Echium is attractive to bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies.  It prefers full sun and good drainage and blends nicely with California natives.

E. candicans is said to be short-lived (six to eight years), but I have marvelous old woody specimens that planted themselves more than twice that long ago.

The leaves and flowers of older plants are not as impressive as those of their offspring, but the gnarled, intricately twisted branches are so decorative that I leave them as testament to the resilience and beauty of old plants that have a great story to tell.